Compound tenses in English

(English verb tenses consisting of several verbs)

Table of contents – compound tenses

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Compound tenses
  2. Further tenses consisting of several parts
  3. Further explanations and exercises

What are compound tenses?

In principle, compound tenses are those verb tenses that are formed with the auxiliary verb ‘to have’ (as perfect tenses) or ‘to be’ (as ing-forms) as well as a full verb. This combination means that the predicate, which represents all verbs in a sentence together, always consists of multiple parts. Compare the examples:

  • Compound tenses express the perfect or the continuous aspect (What is aspect?). They are then formed either with a form of ‘have’ or ‘be’ or with both combined. An additional verb as past participle (third verb form) or present participle (ing-form) is always existent. Examples:
    • “They have done all the housework.”
      • In this case, the tense is the present perfect simple. The only auxiliary verb here is ‘have’, past participle or third verb form is ‘to do’ (done).
    • “She’s waiting in front of the house.”
      • This sentence is in the present progressive, which is made up of the auxiliary verb ‘to be’ (is) and the ing-form of ‘to wait’ (waiting).
    • “Liz has been reading for two hours.”
      • This example shows a sequence of the auxiliary verbs ‘to have’ (has) for perfect aspect and ‘to be’ (been) for continuous aspect as well as ‘to read’ (reading) as present participle. All parts together form the present perfect progressive.
    • Information: These tenses can also occur in the passive voice. In the following, the past perfect simple serves as an example:
      • “The car had been repaired before it was sold.”
        • In this clause, the form of ‘to be’ (been) is not required for the ing-form but for establishing the passive. Also, ‘to have’ (had) is used as an auxiliary verb and ‘repaired’ as the third verb form.

Further tenses consisting of several parts

Although tenses other than those mentioned above may also consist of several parts (auxiliary and main verb), they are generally not considered to be compound tenses. Such tenses with multi-part predicates include, among others, the following:

  • Especially the future simple typically has an auxiliary verb and a main verb:
    • “We will try it later again.”
      • will’ is, however, a modal verb but always belongs to this future form.
  • Likewise, the simple present and the simple past, if negated, used in interrogative sentences or with modal verbs, consist of several parts:
    • “They don’t speak Italian.”
      • Here, a negation with the additional auxiliary verb ‘do’ is used.
    • Does Richard travel much?”
      • Questions frequently include ‘do’ (does) as well.
    • “I can lend you this DVD.”
      • This is an example sentence with a modal verb. This type regularly has at least two verbs too.
    • “This house was built in 1876.”
      • Careful: Although ‘to be’ (was) is used as an auxiliary verb here forming the passive, the form does not count as a compound tense.

Further explanations relating to the ‘Compound tenses’

The following explanations are related to the topic ‘Compound tenses (English verb tenses consisting of several verbs)’ and may also be interesting:

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